Guest columnist SDS steps in today with a scholarly essay exploring the notion of moe as a commodity and his own reflections on the meaning of the term. If you’ve ever thought about the intersection of labor and capital with big eyes and small mouths, this one’s a must read. My question is: if Karl Marx were alive today, would he be a CCS fan?
Pronounced “moh-eh”, it is a Japanese word that is written as “萌え.” Its original meaning is “to bud” in reference to plants. In modern Japanese society however, particularly among the Japanese “otaku” subculture, the word has taken on a different meaning.
The precise definition of moe in its current usage has various conflicting definitions, though they can all be generalized as some form of affection for a fictional character. In an essay on the topic of moe, Ken Akamatsu, author of popular Japanese comics such as Love Hina and Magister Negi Magi, wrote, “”Moe” is a “maternal affection” which a part of males have been left with that has undergone a change and shown itself and, originally, is an irregular feeling a male should not have, however, it is a pure love which does not include any sexual action and is an exceedingly peaceful desire.” Tomonobu Itagaki, creator of the Dead or Alive series of video games also states in an interview, “The girls are beautiful, but I think of them like daughters. They’re my babies!” However, Akamatsu’s works are charged with high sexual situations, frequently using nudity or the possibility of nudity to keep its readers interested, and the Dead or Alive series is famous for its female characters and their skimpy outfits and subtly erotic movements during battle. The definition seems to crumble somewhat under scrutiny when one references their actual material. There really is no widely agreed-upon definition of moe.
The exact history of this cultural phenomenon is not well-documented, but there are definite points at which “moe” is noticeable in otaku culture. Two examples are the popularity and sexualizing of the 1996 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion and its female characters both within the show and among the fan community, and the sheer amount of doujinshi (fan comics) concerning the titular hero of the 1996 manga Cardcaptor Sakura, both sexual and non-sexual. The strong use of “moe” as a descriptor for all of these characters establishes that, as of the 90’s, “moe” definitely existed within the otaku subculture.
Often, characters that are deemed “moe” have some sort of “feminine” weakness. It is feminine in the sense that it is not a weakness in the traditional masculine sense of the “Achilles’ Heel” but more of an emotional one. In Cardcaptor Sakura, the character of Tomoyo Daidouji who is Sakura’s best friend is considered to be moe. The character is clearly in love with Sakura, but because Sakura does not return her affections in the way Tomoyo hopes, she is resigned to help Sakura find true happiness at the expense of her own. While it can be interpreted as a sign of inner strength, it is also a point of emotional, “feminine” vulnerability for Tomoyo. The idea of “moe” as feminine is evident. While characters widely considered moe are not all female, the ones who are male, such as Loran Cehack from Turn A Gundam, have both physically and emotionally feminine characteristics. The “Anime Sai-Moe Tournament,” an online voting contest to determine the most moe character of the year in Japanese animation, male characters are largely non-existent. In the 2006 tournament, Raising Heart, a highly advanced piece of technological weaponry in the shape of a magical staff with a decidedly feminine voice from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, was entered as a contestant. In contrast, the only male character to make it in was Star Bright, a horse from Strawberry Panic.
We have established a semi-solid foundation for the meaning of the word from which it can be discussed, shown just how hazy the definition can get, and most importantly have established that, while the definitions from various sources may not agree with each other, the word “moe” itself exists and is used often. Indeed, the very fact that there is even a “Sai-Moe Tournament” shows that the word holds significant meaning for a large number of people (almost 4500 people voted in the final round) and that there exists a “moral economy” similar to the one Henry Jenkins describes in his essays concerning Star Trek fan culture.
It is interesting then that, while “moe” is a somewhat nebulous concept like “love” and that it appears to derive from a fan community, it is tied so closely to the merchandising associated with Japanese animation and comics. “Moe” in Japan is currently used as a selling point for both the visual media the characters come from as well as the accompanying products associated with the characters. As Karl Marx in Capital states that anything can become a commodity, so too has “moe” become a commodity. The quarterly illustration magazine Dengeki Moeoh and Moetan, a sort of half-english vocabulary lesson, half-product of the cuteness phenomenon series of books, both use the very word in their titles. Whereas the appeal of moe is a driving point for those attracted to it, the use of “moe” as a marketing tool reverses the idea of meaning necessitating words. In other words, the underlying message is “this product is moe, therefore it appeals to you in a certain way,” and not vice versa. It tells the potential buyer that moe is an intrinsic value in the product.
Acclaimed Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki, in an essay concerning his opinions on animation and its industry, said, “I fell in love with the heroine of [Hakujaden (Legend of the White Snake)]. My soul was moved, and I stumbled back home in the snow that had just started. Comparing my pitiful situation to their (characters’) earnestness, I was ashamed of myself, and cried all night.” While Miyazaki has never called any of his characters “moe,” this sort of emotional reaction to a character, particularly a female one, can be likened to it. The ideal is that moe is a unique emotion that comes from a relationship between the viewer and the viewed. That said, the very fact that “moe” seems to derive mostly from fictional characters means that, unlike other emotions such as love and hate, moe is irrevocably linked to consumer culture. Hakujaden itself is the first full-color animated movie made in Japan. It is possible, then, that moe” had its roots in commodity all along, and transformed into an ideal and character creation philosophy, only to revert back to commodity now fueled by emotion (and the potential exploitation of emotion). In this sense, the transformation of moe can be likened to the way capital constantly seeks to be exchanged and may even be considered in its current form to be connected to capital all the time. The very fact that moe is consciously utilized as a selling point means that as moe moves and changes, so does the capital associated with it.
As for my own definition of “moe,” I define it as the emotion that results from projecting one’s own weaknesses onto a character. It exposes the vulnerabilities that one wants to hide in a manner that will not cause emotional damage due to the fact that it is via a fictional character that cannot do any real harm. It creates a comfort zone wherein one can be emotionally free. Thus, moe is neither completely sexual nor completely non-sexual. The associations and individual has with the act of exposing one’s true emotions, as well as the target of this emotional projection, factors into whether or not the viewer relates moe to eroticism. The result is that the relationship between moe and sexuality should be judged on a case by case basis.
It is my belief that moe can only truly be achieved if one is not actively trying to induce it and if one is not trying to use simplistic personalities so that anyone can project their emotions upon them. Rather, moe is more powerful when it comes from creating a multi-faceted character that tells the viewer that, while she is merely a fictional character, her emotions are as real as anyone’s. Another important factor is the personal affection the creator as for his or her own characters. As someone who has made a fictional character whom I began to care for as I drew her over and over, I believe that the amount of effort exerted into the character creates a stronger sense of moe, mirroring the direct relationship labor has with value (the more labor that is put into something, the more value it possesses). Or perhaps it is not a mirror at all, and the ties moe has to marketing and commercialism mean that moe has no choice but to relate to value. That said, in the 2006 Sai-Moe Tournament, the character I considered to be an outstanding example of moe, Eureka from Eureka Seven, was knocked out in the first round. However, while my own opinions on what is moe may differ from many others, moe exists in so far that it has affected people and placed itself with a culture.
SDS is an anime fan with a fondness for giant robots and Genshiken’s Ogiue. He is currently pursuing his MA at New York University, and can be reached for comment here.